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Theresa May hits out at populists in farewell speech

Outgoing PM takes aim at absolutism and bemoans ‘descent into rancour and tribal bitterness’

WT24 Desk

Theresa May has criticised absolutism in politics in what appeared to be a coded swipe at populist politicians such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, The Guardian reports.

The prime minister gave a valedictory speech taking aim at those who refuse to compromise and promote absolutist ideology, including those on both sides of the Brexit debate.

“An inability to combine principles with pragmatism and make a compromise when required seems to have driven our whole political discourse down the wrong path.

“It has led to what is, in effect, a form of absolutism. One which believes that if you simply assert your view loud enough and long enough you will get your way in the end,” she said, addressing an audience at Chatham House in London.

May declined to name individuals responsible for absolutism at home and abroad but she rejected the idea of the no-deal Brexit that Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have repeatedly threatened if the EU does not give them a better deal with no Northern Ireland backstop.

As prime minister, she repeatedly said “no deal is better than a bad deal” but she argued forcefully that had not been the right option.

“Some argue I should have taken the United Kingdom out of the European Union with no deal on 29 March. Some wanted a purer version of Brexit. Others to find a way of stopping it altogether,” she said.

“But most people across our country had a preference for getting it done with a deal. And I believe the strength of the deal I negotiated was that it delivered on the vote of the referendum to leave the European Union, while also responding to the concerns of those who had voted to remain.”

May said the “problem” was that politics “retreated back into its binary pre-referendum positions – a winner takes all approach to leaving or remaining”.

She also railed against the coarsening of language in politics, highlighting that “ill words that go unchallenged are the first step on a continuum to ill deeds, towards a much darker place where hatred and prejudice drive not only what people say, but also what they do”.

“Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others,” she said, highlighting the abuse of female MPs in particular. “This descent of our debate into rancour and tribal bitterness, and in some cases even vile abuse at a criminal level, is corrosive to the democratic values which we should all be seeking to uphold.”

The departing prime minister also said she regretted making mistakes in her own language, particularly having referred to EU migrants as “queue-jumpers”, when confronted over accusations that she had contributed to demonising language.

Following her criticism of Trump for using racist language towards US congresswomen, May took aim at populism across the globe.

“This absolutism is not confined to British politics,” she said. “It festers in politics all across the world. We see it in the rise of political parties on the far left and far right in Europe and beyond.

“And we see it in the increasingly adversarial nature of international relations, which some view as a zero-sum game where one country can only gain if others lose. And where power, unconstrained by rules, is the only currency of value.

“This absolutism at home and abroad is the opposite of politics at its best. It refuses to accept that other points of view are reasonable. It ascribes bad motives to those taking those different views.”

She made the case that moderate politics was in the centre of the road while those at the extremes on either side were “in the gutter”.

Asked directly whether she was talking about Trump and Johnson, May said she was not intending to aim her remarks at particular people.

The Labour MP David Lammy described Theresa May‘s speech as “hollow words”, referencing the controversial Home Office advertising campaign of 2013 that encouraged illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest”.

“Hollow words from a PM who spent her years in office promoting Farage’s agenda with populist rhetoric, insulting EU citizens as ‘queue-jumpers’, and saying internationalists are ‘citizens of nowhere’,” he said. “We’ll never forget the ‘Go home’ vans you put on our streets.”

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